Standing on the banks of a river in the Niger Delta region, inhaling the acrid smell of benzine oozing from the befouled waters on a windy morning or a calm evening, the sight of young agile men and women with bodies glimmering of sweat and black sludge busy berthing their canoes to offload yellow containers of stolen petrol or other crude oil by-products, is not in the least unusual. However, the scale of oil theft in local oil bearing communities is tremendously minuscule when compared with that which happens on Nigerian high seas and usually perpetuated by international complex criminal networks.
Illegal oil bunkering which is the act of siphoning crude oil from pipelines or flow stations and in extension, adding extra crude oil to legitimate cargos for sale to interested buyers or dealers waiting in the creeks, by the road side or on the high sea is a long enduring practice. Historically, oil theft is believed to have started during the oil boom period around 1970. While lesser amount of the stolen crude is consumed or sold locally, a greater volume is either sold overseas or bartered in exchange for arms and ammunition. Moreover, transnational illegal oil trade across the Gulf of Guinea strengthens arms and drug trafficking across the globe.
The condemnable practice of illegal oil bunkering occurs when technical glitches lead to pipeline rupture allowing members of surrounding local communities fetch oil to their satisfaction until the leak is fixed. Those who are more brazen deliberately sabotage pipelines and deliver steady flow of crude oil to their own facilities through underground taps that they install for the oil to be refined illegally or sold as crude to dealers. On a grander scale, some international oil marketers illegally steal oil in huge volume by lifting more oil than the licensed amount.
Michele Sison, current American Ambassador to Haiti, stated in 2016 while quoting from a Chatham House document that about 400,000 barrels of oil is stolen daily from Nigeria and transported to other parts of the world. To put some figures to it, it is on record that Nigeria loses about $1.5 billion (over N500,000,000,000) monthly to illegal oil bunkering.
Poverty, occasioned by underdevelopment in the Niger Delta region is a prominent causative factor of oil theft while the resultant effects include; environmental degradation, incentivisation of crime and violence, loss of revenue for the country, loss of profit and man-hour for oil companies and conflict in local communities.
Why does oil theft continue to fester unabated despite the huge amount of money spent by oil companies and the Nigerian government to employ conventional and unconventional security of oil installations, one might wonder.
What makes it more worrisome is that Nigeria appears to be the only country in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) plagued by dizzying heights of illegal oil bunkering.
Details of this hydra-headed menace may be invisible to the ordinary eye as it has been established that those involved in the despicable act of oil theft actually front for big guns in the Nigerian society and the international oil racket.
Just recently, groups in the Niger Delta like the Ijaw National Congress, Niger Delta Civil Society Coalition, Niger Delta Environmental Protection Group, have unequivocally accused members of the Joint Task Force (JTF) manning oil installations and the Nigerian Navy of being complicit in oil theft by aiding and abetting criminals who perpetrate the act. As a counter claim, the Joint Task Force (JTF) dispelled the notion that of military culpability vehemently. In a documentary produced by the Defence Headquarters, JTF claimed that members of host communities and militants are the ones who siphon oil an/d or connive with oil bunkers to lift oil illegally from Nigeria.
Having established that highly placed oil moguls, politicians, top military officers, Niger Delta militants and senior government officials are either directly or indirectly involved in illegal oil bunkering, it is obvious that without temerity of mind and tenacity of purpose, there is no end in sight to the perils of oil theft, which has given Nigeria a bad name in the comity of oil-producing nations.
To curb the menace of oil bunkering, stakeholders must go beyond the conventional approach of using security operatives to man oil installations. Technology is one veritable tool that can be deployed to foil the antics of oil thieves.
In addition, empowering host community members and involving them in the policing and overall security process will go a long way in stemming the menace for they know the terrain of their communities like the back of their hands and even can identify those who engage in oil theft within their communities.
In addition, raising awareness on the dangerous risk that oil theft poses especially to health can go a long way to dissuade people, especially in host communities from bunkering oil and indulging oil bunkers.
Most importantly, oil companies need to increase their social investments in oil-producing areas exponentially and invest more in stakeholder engagement to drive peaceful, impactful social and human development in oil-producing areas.
Above all, the bulk of the work lies with the Nigerian government. There is a need for government to work hand-in-hand with oil trade groups like Nigerian Union of Petroleum and Gas Workers (NUPENG) and Independent Petroleum Marketers Association of Nigeria (IPMAN) to smoke out oil marketers involved in oil theft. Urgent steps must be taken by the government to reshuffle, revamp and empower the Joint Task Force (JTF) and the Nigerian Navy.
Moreover, individuals caught engaging in oil theft should be grievously sanctioned by the government regardless of their status to serve as a deterrent to others.
There has been no other time in our history when the need to combat the menace of oil theft has been greater than now. The global oil market is plummeting, and our economy is shrinking. We must, therefore, be decisive about plugging all financial loopholes to shore up our economic fortress and fund development.